Who Killed the Spoof Movie?

Oh, how the undeservedly mighty have fallen. Over consecutive Januarys in 2007 and 2008, writer/directors Jason Friedberg and Aaron Seltzer had the #1 movie in the country (Epic Movie and Meet the Spartans, respectively), low-budget and thus profitable spoofs of popular blockbusters. Last weekend, the duo’s latest, The Starving Games, opened on exactly ten screens (compared to the 2500-plus each for their previous efforts). I can’t tell you how it did on those screens; its distributor, “Ketchup Entertainment,” isn’t reporting its grosses. Not that it matters —The Starving Games’ primary target appears to be the VOD audience, one that can treat the film as background noise while checking Facebook and playing Candy Crush. But it seems an appropriate fate for the two men who single-handedly killed the once reputable comedy subgenre of the “spoof movie.”

Or did they? As anyone who’s seen Frankenstein (or, better yet,Young Frankenstein, one of the greatest of all spoof movies) knows, a havoc-wreaking monster often comes from a master with the best of intentions. In this case, that master is Keenan Ivory Wayans — who, ironically, directed one of the best of all spoof movies, the 1988 blaxploitation parody I’m Gonna Git You Sucka. In 2000, he helmed Scary Movie, a take-off of Scream and its ilk (which was kind of a spoof movie itself, so the snake was eating its own tail to begin with) penned by no less than three pairs of writers: stars (and director’s brothers) Shawn and Marlon Wayans, Buddy Johnson and Phil Beauman (who went on to do Not Another Teen Movie), and Friedberg and Seltzer.

The Scary Movie franchise carried on, with increasingly diminished returns, under the guidance of once-great spoof-maker David Zucker. The Wayans brothers, in varying combinations, made such messes as Dance Flick and A Haunted House. But the most shameful legacy of Keenan Ivory Wayans’ 2000 film is the horrifying filmography of Mr. Friedberg and Mr. Seltzer.

Six years later, when Friedberg and Seltzer struck out on their own, they made the most of their Scary Movie connection, branding their film with the similar moniker Date Movie and noting, “From two of the six writers of Scary Movie!” on the posters. Epic Movie, Meet the Spartans, Disaster Movie, Vampires Suck, and The Starving Games followed, and you’ve gotta give them this much: Friedberg and Seltzer are consistent. From Date Movie forward, their primary comic device is the appearance of the unexpected pop culture artifact. From Napoleon Dynamite to Borat to the “Leave Britney alone!” guy, no payoff delights these comic auteurs more than cutting away to the flavor of the month, presumably causing the audience to roar with laughter, smack themselves on the forehead, and exclaim, “Hot damn, how the hell’d the Kardashians end up in thar? Hyuck, hyuck!”

Here’s an example. The first “joke” (and let’s not go too crazy bandying that word about) in The Starving Games goes like this: Kantmiss Evershot (get it!?) is out hunting in the woods. She spies an owl, and pulls out her trusty bow and arrow. But just before she fires, her boyfriend pops into her sightline, forcing her to shoot the arrow straight up. Cut to a guy who kinda-sorta looks like James Franco in a hot air balloon, announcing, “I am the great and powerful—” before the arrow lands in his chest and sends him overboard.

This is the entire bit. There’s no commentary on The Great and Powerful Oz, no joke beyond the mere incongruousness of its reference within a Hunger Games parody; even the notion of taking some sort of shot at the eternally ridicule-able James Franco is beyond these comedy-makers’ grasp. We’re just supposed to laugh because they mention another movie, and know that we’ve heard of it too, and that’s funny, I guess? A few minutes later, the focal trio of the Harry Potter movies is seen attempting to avoid going to the Starving Games selection ceremony, only to have a guard snap Harry’s wand in half and scold, “Your franchise is over. Get in line!” Once again, that’s the whole gag — Harry and Ron and Hermione in The Hunger Games! Isn’t it hilarious?!

It’s not. And this is the problem with the sad, limp affairs that spoof movies have become: they’re not parody, they’re quotation. If you’d like an idea of the scathing wit on display in The Starving Games, the tagline of the titular event is “May the odds be never in your favor.” They’re not actually sending up The Hunger Games (which, in the hands of people who knew what the fuck they were doing, would be ripe for parody, what with all those insane costumes and the solemn dystopia stuff); they’re just assuring you that we’ve all seen it. Even the title is offensively stupid; “starving” isn’t a play on “hunger,” but merely a synonym. It’s almost like they’re hoping to capture the lucrative dollars of the same idiots who accidentally rent “mockbusters” from Asylum.

The great spoof movies, like Airplane and Blazing Saddles and Hot Shots! and The Naked Gun and Dead Men Don’t Wear Plaid, didn’t just ingest tropes and spew them back at the screen, Exorcist-style. In fact, they were funny even if you didn’t know the movies they were sending up, because they had a wit and style of their own. The classic “I speak jive” bit in Airplane!, for example, works on about four different levels. First (and most obviously), disaster movies like the Airport movies frequently had a passenger or passengers who spoke in their subtitled native tongue. So the first spin is the idea of passengers speaking black slang English, which would be totally impenetrable to the white people around them and would thus require subtitles. And then the second spin is the idea of a sweet little old lady who “speaks jive” and volunteers to communicate with them, hilariously. And then the third crank on the knob is that said little old lady would be Barbara Billingsley, mother of Leave It to Beaver and maybe the whitest woman in America.

The creators of Airplane! recognized an overdone trope, decided to parody it, and kept adding layers to the joke until they came up with a classic bit of comedy. If Seltzer and Friedberg were trying to spoof the same cliché, they’d cast William Hung, have him say “ching chong ching,” and put the same thing in the subtitles. And then a Snooki lookalike would punch him in the face. The spoof movie is dead, is the point, and The Starving Games is just a phantom moan from a long-closed coffin. But at least its relative low profile and presumably embarrassing grosses mean that everyone’s finally leaving the funeral.